Theory and Practice, Episode Four


If you spend any time at all thinking about moral philosophy, eventually you face a set of difficult questions. Some of these are:

  • If making ethical decisions comes down to learning and applying the correct moral framework, why do people disagree about morality at all?
  • Couldn’t we just sit down together, discuss The Virtues, or whatever, determine what the most virtuous action is, and proceed accordingly?
  • Why, even after acting in accordance with our moral philosophy, do we still face doubts and even regrets about what we’ve done?
  • And so on.

There are a few possible explanations for all of this. One might be that, while the Virtues (or our preferred moral philosophy) are perfect, human reasoning is not. Another might be that truth is untruth in the moral realm as much as elsewhere. Still another might be that morality is subjective. Or, more radically, perhaps morality is a psychological illusion or a sense of self-justification we instigate ex post facto.

But I gravitate to another explanation: Moral reasoning is a skill that must be practiced and perfected. 

Stages Of Moral Reasoning

In mathematics, we must learn arithmetic long before attempting to solve a differential equation. We learn things in stages, starting with elementary concepts, which can gradually built into far more elegant thinking. Some people cannot visualize four-dimensional space, some can. The difference is only the level of refinement in their thinking. Have you internalized your basic mathematical concepts, learned trigonometry, and understood the geometric implications of calculus? Then you can probably envision 4-space easily. Is your background in mathematics a little weaker? Then you probably cannot – but you could, if you developed the capacity for mathematical reasoning.

But does an analogous concept apply to moral reasoning? Lawrence Kohlberg says yes. In his research, he proposed six – and hypothetically seven – stages of moral development ranging from the elementary (punishment avoidance) to the refined (principled conscience).

Kohlberg’s research built on the cognitive development theories of Jean Piaget. In a recent article entitled “Fostering Goodness & Caring: Promoting Moral Development of Young Children,” Ruth A. Wilson writes,

According to Piaget (1965), children construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world through interactions with the environment. Such knowledge includes children’s understandings about what is right and what is wrong (Piaget, 1965). Moral development and cognitive development are thus closely intertwined. Moral reasoning is, in fact, considered to be one of the central aspects (or “building blocks”) of moral functioning (Berkowitz & Grych, 1998). Being a “good” person, however, involves more than having the cognitive understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Other central aspects of moral functioning include empathy, conscience, and altruism (Berkowitz & Grych, 1998).

That’s where Kohlberg’s theory of the stages of moral reasoning kicks in:

Developmentalists, such as Kohlberg, propose that the process of attaining moral maturity occurs over time if conditions are favorable for such growth. They also believe that a child’s moral maturity is directly related to the way she thinks about concepts such as justice, rights, equality, and human welfare. Over time and through a variety of social interactions, children come to develop their own understandings of these concepts. Thus, their sense of “goodness” is constructed through their own thinking about their experiences and through dialogue with others about what these experiences mean (Nucci, 2001). Children’s sense of goodness is also fostered through encouragement offered by significant adults in their lives. One principal of an elementary school in Florida offers such encouragement at the end of his daily announcements by saying something like, “Remember, children, be kind to one another” (Comora, 2004).

Dr. Wilson argues that simply handing children a “bag of virtues” is insufficient for the development of effective – and hopefully highly superior – moral reasoning. Citing Robert Coles, she writes, “We may be able to get children to do certain things or ‘to behave themselves’ as we want them to, but that doesn’t mean they’ve developed a sense of goodness or morality.”

In short, it’s not enough to teach moral philosophy – not to children, not to anyone. Knowing what is the right and wrong thing isn’t sufficient. We rather need to develop our capacity for moral reasoning. It’s not philosophy in a vacuum, it’s applied cognitive development as it pertains to the ethical realm.

Theory isn’t just useless in absence of practice, it cannot even be fully understood without our having reinforced Theory’s concepts in real-world interactions!

Wilson’s Recommendations For Moral Development

As a brief aside – partly because I am a parent, and partly because I think it is a good showcase of what developing moral reasoning looks like in practice – I’d like to briefly outline Ruth Wilson’s recommendations for how to help children develop good moral reasoning. She elaborates in the article linked above.

  1. Help children understand the reasons behind the rules – including the ethical rules. Children shouldn’t ever be told “because I said so.” (Never! By the way, this is a good way to develop narcissistic tendencies in a child.) Instead, ethical rules should be discussed with children in the form of a true dialogue – with the child offering his or her own thoughts on the subject, and the parent highlighting some important ethical considerations.
  2. Match ethical instruction to the level of the child’s cognitive development. A toddler certainly can’t understand Pareto optimality, for example, so explanations and lessons must come in a form the child can understand at that moment in time. If a child is only capable of Stage Two moral reasoning (the “what’s in it for me?” stage), then the moral instruction should arrive in that form, and hopefully hint at Stage Three.
  3. Attend to the victim first. That is, when one child hurts another, first ensure that the injured party has been given the right attention. This helps both the injured and the injurer understand that the important thing is to consider other people. If, by contrast, we started by punishing the guilty child, the only lesson that child would learn is the Stage Two level of reasoning: “I did XYZ, and it didn’t work out for me.” Me, me, me.
  4. Reinforce ethical lessons with children’s literature. Aesop, Plato, Jesus, and Rand taught with the use of parables because doing so is a highly effective way to teach moral reasoning.
  5. Expose the child to animals and pets. Doing so helps them develop empathy, kindness, and gentleness.
  6. Model, encourage, and reward good moral behavior. This is, in fact, vitally important. Not only does “do as I say, not as I do” encourage narcissism by presenting rules as arbitrary, but children simply imitate adults. It’s what they do.

Results And Moral Development

You need not buy into Kohlberg’s theory of stages wholesale to internalize the more important piece of information: Morality is a skill and, like any skill, it can be learned and refined. But refining a skill requires practice, not just theory. As per my usual hobby horse, the result of the skill of moral reasoning should be moral outcomes, not moral reasoning. In other words, moral philosophy should never be an end in itself. Our focus should always be on producing better outcomes.

What do I mean by “better outcomes,” and who gets to decide? As I have written previously, what this means to me in practice is that better outcomes are those that produce more happiness and more mental health, and the person who gets to decide what that means is you.

Many of the previous objections I have received to this idea pertain to the notion that morality cannot be objective, and that psychologists are no better at arriving at good moral reasoning than moral philosophers. If Kohlberg is correct – even in theory – then one explanation for this is that there is no guarantee that a person who is very knowledgeable of moral theory has a well-developed sense of moral reasoning. This also explains why we often hear that ethicists are no more moral than anyone else.

These thinkers are akin to music teachers who know extensive music theory and pedagogical techniques, but who cannot play their instruments with any level of expertise. (I know a music teacher who gives lessons for instruments he himself does not even play.)

We can learn moral theories from philosophers, but that does not imply that moral philosophers act morally. We can acquire extensive knowledge of philosophical and moral theory without ever having developed a real-world sense of moral reasoning.

For all of these reasons, I have come to believe that what matters for morality is not theory and philosophy, but practice and results.

2 thoughts on “Theory and Practice, Episode Four

  1. Paul Crider

    This is the best episode of the series. I would just make one addition: open your system to the possibility of critique from other perspectives. It’s at least possible that the moral actor, the psychologist, and the philosopher can all get stuck in “local minima” in the socially maintained ethical landscape. For instance, in a moral system of hierarchy and dominance that is thoroughly internalized by most moral actors, any deviation – whether alternative experiments in living or rebellion against the masters – will incur costs in mental health. If a woman in a patriarchal society agitates too much for equal treatment before the law and equal respect in the public forum, she will be predictably shunned and her mental health will suffer. Her mental health will suffer more the harder she tries to change.

    A psychologist (whose colleagues rarely question gender roles in this society because even if it did cross their minds, getting grant money for such studies would be a longshot) advising such a woman can correctly point out that *most* women are perfectly content with their place in the home. So there are two possibilities for increasing aggregate mental health in this situation: the woman can lower her expectations, and learn to be happy with her place in society as it is; or everyone else in society can adapt their ethics to facilitate the woman’s gender-egalitarian view of mental health.

    Without openness to critique, your system would seem to gravitate toward the first option every time.

    1. Aha, I think I see where our disagreement is. If you’re suggesting that my moral philosophy is poorly equipped to affect broad social changes, I would tend to agree. For me, the purpose of a moral philosophy is *NOT* to change the behavior of others, but only of ourselves. Perhaps that is part of my deference to psychology, where it is commonly heard that we can’t change the behavior of other people, we can only change our *own* behavior.

      For me, life – especially *moral* life – is inherently individualistic. The very idea that the whole world should change in order to make me, personally, happier is… Well, it expects too much of the world. One can never be happy if one’s happiness is dependent on widespread social change. We cannot place our destinies in the hands of other people. We can only change ourselves.

      As I often like to say, “We can make the world a better place by being better people.” Or, put differently, being better people is how we make the world a better place. Expecting the world to become filled with better people is a bridge too far, in my opinion. My moral philosophy definitely does not even attempt to do so. But if I change the mind of just one person, influencing him or her to be a happier and more moral person, then I am satisfied.

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